With Asia in transition and the specter of a power imbalance looming large, it has become imperative to invest in institutionalized cooperation to reinforce the region’s strategic stability. After all, not only is Asia becoming the pivot of global geopolitical change, but Asian challenges are also playing into international strategic challenges.

Asia’s changing power dynamics are reflected in China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy, the new Japanese government’s demand for an “equal” relationship with the United States, and the sharpening Sino-Indian rivalry, which has led to renewed Himalayan border tensions.

All of this is highlighting America’s own challenges, which are being exacerbated by its eroding global economic pre-eminence and involvement in two wars. Such challenges dictate greater U.S.-China cooperation to ensure continued large capital inflows from China, as well as Chinese political support on difficult issues ranging from North Korea and Burma to Pakistan and Iran.

But, just when America’s Sino-centric Asia policy became noticeable, Japan put the U.S. on notice that it cannot indefinitely remain a faithful servant of American policies. Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s government is seeking to realign foreign policy and rework a 2006 deal for the basing of U.S. military personnel on Okinawa. It also announced an end to its eight-year-old Indian Ocean refueling mission in support of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, China’s resurrection of its long-dormant claim to the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, and its needling of India over Kashmir (one-fifth of which is under Chinese control), is testing the new US-India global strategic partnership.

The U.S. has chartered a course of tacit neutrality on the Arunachal Pradesh issue — to the delight of China, which aims to leave an international question mark hanging over the legitimacy of India’s control of the Himalayan territory, which is almost three times as large as Taiwan. Indeed, the Obama administration has signaled its intent to abandon elements in its ties with India that could rile China, including a joint military exercise in Arunachal and any further joint naval maneuvers involving Japan or other parties, like Australia.

Yet, the recent Australia-India security agreement, signed during Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s visit to New Delhi, symbolizes the role of common political values in helping to forge an expanding strategic constellation of Asia-Pacific countries. The Indo-Australian agreement received little attention, but such is its significance that it mirrors key elements of Australia’s security accord with Japan — and that between India and Japan. All three of these accords, plus the 2005 U.S.-India defense framework agreement, recognize a common commitment to democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law, and obligate their signatories to work together to build security in Asia.

An Asian geopolitical divide centered on political values would, of course, carry significant implications. And, while Asia — with the world’s fastest-growing markets, fastest-rising military expenditures, and most-volatile hot spots — holds the key to the future global order, its major powers remain at loggerheads.

Central to Asia’s future is the strategic triangle made up of China, India and Japan. Not since Japan rose to world-power status during the Meiji emperor’s reign in the second half of the 19th century has another non-Western power emerged with such potential to alter the world order as China today. Indeed, as the U.S. intelligence community’s 2009 assessment predicted, China stands to affect global geopolitics more profoundly than any other country.

China’s ascent, however, is dividing Asia, and its future trajectory will depend on how its neighbors and other players, like the U.S., manage its rapidly accumulating power. At present, China’s rising power helps validate American forward military deployments in East Asia. The China factor also is coming handy in America’s efforts to win new allies in Asia.

But, as the U.S.-China relationship deepens in the coming years, the strains in some of America’s existing partnerships could become pronounced. For example, building a stronger cooperative relationship with China is now taking precedence in U.S. policy over the sale of advanced weaponry to Asian allies, lest the transfer of offensive arms provoke Chinese retaliation in another area.

While the European community was built among democracies, the political systems in Asia are so varied — and some so opaque — that building inter-state trust is not easy. In Europe, the bloody wars of the past century have made armed conflict unthinkable today. But in Asia, the wars since 1950 failed to resolve disputes. And, while Europe has built institutions to underpin peace, Asia has yet to begin such a process in earnest.

Never before have China, Japan, and India all been strong at the same time. Today, they need to find ways to reconcile their interests in Asia so that they can coexist peacefully and prosper.

But there can be no denying that these three leading Asian powers and the U.S. have different playbooks: America wants a unipolar world but a multipolar Asia; China seeks a multipolar world but a unipolar Asia; and Japan and India desire a multipolar Asia and a multipolar world.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is author of “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.” © 2010 Project Syndicate

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